Wish I could convince them they’re beautiful

Middle-school girls are so hard on themselves.

“I’m too fat,” they tell me. “My nose is too short. My nose is too big. I’m too short. I’m too tall. My hair’s too curly. My hair’s too straight.” They mostly agree that thin and light-complected is a win, despite the fact that complexions run darker in this school.

I had one girl run out of the class in tears when someone told her she was “flat.” They don’t necessarily want big breasts, but they sure don’t want to lose the breast-development competition.

Classroom instruction ground to a halt while I stood near the doorway, trying to simultaneously watch a class and discreetly convince the girl in the hallway that her breasts were just fine, exactly right for her age.

Marni’s Not Moving

I changed the name above as I move into the borders of confidentiality.

For months, we have prepared for one girl’s move to another school district. Her dad came to tell me she was leaving. He wanted to make sure she did not fail 7th grade since she will be leaving school early to go to Mexico and the family plan was to move to Naperville when she returned.

Dad wanted to be closer to work (his commute’s over an hour) and he wanted better schools and a better neighborhood for his kids. The house next door got shot up in some gang-related drive-by shooting. I wished him well and we planned a pizza party to coincide with her departure, the end of the Constitution test and the near graduation of the 8th graders.

But Marni’s not moving, although she will go to Mexico and this somewhat sickly girl will miss yet more school. I know what happened. Dad discussed the problem with me. He liked Naperville, but he was stunned  by the housing prices there. He’s been searching for a house for months. He can’t find a place for his family in his price range.

This week mom had Marni pick up the registration form for next year. She’ll be back. Dad will be spending somewhere around three hours in his daily commute. I’ll likely have this girl in my 8th grade classes next year.

The educational problem attached to this post: Our poorest neighborhoods have our poorest schools, for the most part, and we offer these families no alternatives. Even those families who are able to move often can’t find housing in a good school district that they can afford. When everyone was working on blackboards and writing in notebooks, this difference mattered less, especially since school discipline worked much better in our past. In this technological age, though, Marni just suffered a real loss.

Our computer lab was not even working until mid-winter this year. There are no student computers in the rooms. My class has one day a week in the lab when it is working and available — a time better measured in weeks this year since I’m not sure that lab was accessible for even two months — and even when the lab is working, we’re often frantically using those ancient computers to do school testing before the system crashes again. (I keep intending to take my old floppy disks into the lab to see if I can get some useful old stuff off them, although the fact that the lab printers hardly ever work makes that more complicated. I may be able to move some stuff to a flash drive if the software meshes.)

I spent much of April and May without internet in my classroom. I could not even get my district mail. My students asked repeatedly if we could do the social studies constitution tests available online. The answer was no, of course. I didn’t even have the internet in the classroom and when they got the computer lab up, they tried to use it for MAP testing of the student body. The lab has continued to crash. It’s almost June. We’ll see if the student body manages to finish the MAP test. I wouldn’t put money on it.

The technology gap is only one problem that Marni faces by being unable to move.

Where am I going with this? I’d like to point out that these situations occur all over America and form a fiercely strong argument for a voucher system. We can’t solve the affordable housing issue. Market forces will always make some areas unaffordable to lower-wage workers. But we could begin to address the issue of those children who are forced to live in an area with poor schools. If Marni’s dad received vouchers to pay for an education, he might be able to find a school near his job that would better help to prepare his kids for the future.

My district has many excellent educators and motivated administrators. But that does not change the fact that our test scores are hugging the bottom in the educationally-illustrious state of Illinois and nothing that requires real money or infrastructure works very well here.  In another district, Marni’s dad could go online to look at his daughter’s academic progress. In the land of no email and no internet, however, we don’t even have a standardized grade program, much less one that a parent could access from outside the school. Hell, for some weeks this year, even our district website didn’t work.

P.S. The situation improved somewhat the next year and then improved dramatically the year after that when the state effectively took control of the district.

Ummm… Stand up for naptime?

Quote from one of my seventh grade students:

“My little brother’s gonna go to summer school cause he’s flunking all his classes. He doesn’t even know how to read.”

Her little brother is in kindergarten.

Why did the chicken cross the Moebius strip?

To get to the same side of course!

Excuse the math joke. The following is no joke.

My previous post quoted Yalda T. Uhls in her blog “In the Digital Age” at (http://www.parentinginthedigitalage.com/2011/03/china-education-and-parenting-how-does-it-differ-from-us). That post was about time spent on academics. Ms. Uhls also mentions a separate issue that I want to throw out on the table:

Another important difference is the competence of teachers in elementary school.  In China, teachers learn a major subject that they will then teach in the classroom, such as Math or Science.  The result is the teacher is usually both more prepared and interested in the coursework.  By contrast, 90% of US elementary school classrooms have one teacher who teaches all subjects.  Thus, many American teachers have a subpar understanding of subjects such as Math, even though they are student’s primary source of knowledge for these subjects (Tsui, 2005).  This fact alone may explain why US 5th graders rank so far behind Chinese students in Math.

I received my original certification in high school mathematics and a truly disturbing number of elementary teachers have told me, “oh, I was never any good at math.” By 5th and 6th grade, this matters. Teachers cannot teach what they don’t know.

(Not) Drilling our Way to China

I like this title. As China seems poised to take over the United States economy, I pause to consider the fact that the Chinese may well be better fit to run this economy than we are. I don’t see that situation changing in the near future.  Certainly, much of the world is producing better educational results than we are.

One reason for this is that we don’t drill. We don’t drill our students and they don’t remember what we allegedly taught them. Our students do some fun activity or group project to learn a new concept. They maybe even take a quiz or test, though we often substitute projects for tests now, and then these students move on.

The next year many of them have to start over. People don’t retain information they seldom use. Phone numbers provide a perfect analogy. If I need to call the plumber a few times during a month, I’ll know his number for a few months. By next year, though, I’ll need to look that number up because the number did not quite make it’s way into long-term memory. I see this happening with so much academic material that is lightly glossed over as educators hurdle from topic to topic to try to fit in all the state/common core standards.

In contrast, according to Yalda T. Uhls http://www.parentinginthedigitalage.com/2011/03/china-education-and-parenting-how-does-it-differ-from-us) in her blog “In the Digital Age”:

On the weekends for example, Chinese children have eight times the amount of homework of American children.  Beginning in elementary school, the two countries greatly vary in amount of time performing academic tasks; in US classrooms 5th grade students spent 64.5% of their time on academics, while Chinese students spent 91.5% of their time on similar tasks.  Moreover in the US, children were found to spend 20% of their time at school outside of the classroom, while in China they were rarely observed in other non-mandatory tasks (Stevenson et al., 1986).”

Drilling for Knowledge

Here’s the thing: Worksheets are definitely a dirty word in modern education classes. We no longer drill students. They no longer remember what they learned last year, either. These facts are not unconnected.

Snapshot from ISAT prep in the spring of 2011: We are doing a math review to get ready for the state test, plodding through earlier material. I had a real epiphany one afternoon when we were plotting points on a coordinate graph. I’d done my best to get my points across when we first covered this material in the fall, even going so far as to jump up and squat down when showing what the x’s and y’s do. I had them jump. I showed them the helpful posters on the wall which they could use to remember how to plot points on the ISATs. We had spent some time on the topic and they’d all done pretty well on the quiz and test.

Six months later, many of them had forgotten what to do.

“We did this,” I said. “You knew this.”

“That was a long time ago,” one girl answered and the class chimed in their agreement.

The idea slammed home to me that I had obviously not given them enough homework. That information on points had never made the journey to long-term memory. They knew the information for weeks. The test was some weeks after the quiz. But by spring, the steps to putting a point on paper had been lost by a fair number of students.

I blame myself. But I also blame current pedagogical practices. Teachers are taught to avoid the lowly worksheet. They are taught to avoid boring, repetitive material. Worksheets are so out of fashion, so associated with a time when children sat in rows. Those children read, did the questions at the back of the chapters, and then started the next chapter. I grew up in that time.

I’d like to observe that the literature suggests that our children learned more during that time and maybe not all the difference in learning can be explained by demographic changes. Worksheets are not fun. Worksheets do work, however. They are especially effective for visual learners with good reading skills. They also often improve reading skills.

I should have given that class more worksheets. If they needed to plot 2,000 points to remember how to plot points, they should have plotted those points. I had cheated those students who regularly did the homework by not giving them enough homework. Those students with sketchier homework performance would also have benefited, even if they only plotted 500 or 1,000 of their points.

I have heard many math teachers complain how little their incoming students know. “How come they can’t add fractions?” They ask. A principal once told me that he thought the elementary teachers were not teaching the material. But I’ve talked to elementary teachers who tell me all about the fun ways they have found to teach fractions. A lot of these methods involve eating candy, pizza and pastries.  I’m sure the kids love “fractions.”

I’m also sure that many students enter seventh grade where I work having forgotten how to actually add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions. In the short term, they learned what to do, but that material did not transfer over into long-term memory. The idea of a fraction crossed over into their memory, but the actual methods needed to manipulate the numbers disappeared.

I’d like to put in a strong vote for more worksheets, despite all the literature that favors fun, hands-on activities instead. My fourth grade teacher handed worksheets out like the candy we hand out now. Every day he handed out problems that filled the page. My math class was pretty dull compared to math in 2011. But almost everyone in that class entered fifth grade knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions.

Fun can get out of hand. Many students require more repetition to remember a new idea than they actually receive. Liberal use of worksheets could help address this problem. As it stands, we reteach and reteach and reteach. Why not do it right the first time?

Living too hard and whirling too fast

The part that’s really nuts: Because of the gun threat, I get to leave on time, which almost never happens. I’m really happy, too, since this means I will have enough time to do all my homework for my continuing education class and still get my sleep. When your response to a gun threat is to be grateful for a free afternoon and evening to read and write about linguistics so you can make a 6-something train to a four-hour, Saturday class, you’re living too damn hard.

For that matter, I scared the lunch ladies for sure last week. I was down in the cafeteria trying to fix the lunch tickets. Almost every kid I have gets free breakfast and lunch, but their paperwork is often screwed up. For one thing, many of the bilingual students’ parents can’t read the paperwork — in English or Spanish — and the illegals don’t want to fill out paperwork sometimes, even if they can read it. So I am in the lunchroom and I can’t do what I need to do. I whirl around in indignation to stalk back to the classroom.

I whirled too fast. It had been too hot in this school with no air-conditioning. The next thing I know, I am sliding down a convenient wall, breaking my fall. The lunch lady runs to the nurse. The security lady hugs me and tells me about Jesus. My assistant principal arrives and HE hugs me, telling me that I can have a mental health day if I need one. Lots of fuss and commotion over this near faint.

Bless the security guard. There wasn’t much I could do except hand the situation to Jesus. It was sure out of my control.

I am living too hard.


Code White

Friday we go into Code White, a lock-down. Not a drill. Some kid was apparently bringing a gun to school, planning to kill some other kid. I spent a few minutes afterwards comforting a security guard who was unraveling because she had realized that a number of students, including the intended victim, had known this might happen.

“What was he thinking?” she said. “He knew this was going to happen and he came to school.” The guard’s eyes were filled with as-yet unshed tears. I told the guard what the lunch lady told me when I collapsed in the lunchroom last week: “Hand it to Jesus.”

I was in gym when the lockdown occurred, picking up straggling students. Then I got to spend a long hour trying to quiet students in the gym, often without success. The students had all been expecting a championship soccer game and they were thoroughly amped up.

We have had too many drills, too. Code White has lost most of its credibility. I nonetheless got a few bodies out of line of the doorway, since my take was an intruder might start shooting there, taking advantage of the cover provided by the stairs and dumpsters.

Finally, the drama was over and we were released from lockdown. Afternoon activities were cancelled. I called off my three afterschool detentions for tardiness. I couldn’t coordinate with students since not all my kids were in gym, so no one ended up with weekend homework.

Academics lost this week.

A tough job

One reason the world should be kind to teachers is that this job is far tougher than most people realize, especially in poor and urban school districts. I watched almost no recreational TV during the last school year, cutting sleep sometimes in order to be ready for the next day. Lesson planning happens in the evening, grading happens, and phone calls home may punctuate these efforts. High school teachers sometimes have more than 150 students to manage and that management takes skills that only develop with time, time that some would-be teachers never receive. Excessive flexibility doesn’t work in a poor or urban school because the kids generally need a great deal of structure — but, without flexibility, the challenges that these schools and their students pose can prove overwhelming.

I remain amazed that I survived my first couple of years. They walked on me like I was the family room rug. Fortunately, we liked each other. I survived, but many don’t.

Be kind to your web-footed friend


“Be kind to your web-footed friend. For a duck may be somebody’s mother.”

This little song should have been written for teachers.

Be kind to your web-footed friends
For a duck may be somebody’s mother,
Be kind to your friends in the swamp 

Where the weather is very, very damp.

I feel like a duck in a swamp right now. It’s cold and damp out here and I’m swimming as fast as I can, trying to herd ducklings while trying to avoid the big net in the hands of random administrators. I’m about to try flying South, duck or no.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uedyba2UWv0 has the Mitch Miller version of this song for anyone who missed this childhood camp favorite.

The teachers I know could all desperately use a little kindness. Here in Illinois, we are sometimes portrayed as lazy, greedy union thugs. In rebuttal, I’d like to observe I often work seventy plus hours per week during the school year. My take-home pay after family insurance is taken out of my paycheck leaves me barely able to afford a nice apartment. We’d be right about at the cut-off line for the federal poverty level for a family of our size without my husband’s income. The union’s another issue, but I have known the union to protect employees who needed protection. It’s a scary world out here in the swamp.